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Shukhov, the title prisoner of the novel, is a poor and
uneducated man. As such, he is an unusual protagonist in Russian
literature. He is not an aristocrat, like most of the heroes of
nineteenth-century Russian novels. He is also not a brilliant intellectual
or impassioned sufferer, like some of nineteenth-century Russian
novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters. As a peasant, Shukhov comes
from a class not often featured in Russian novels. He may even be
illiterate. When he sees the poem Kolya is copying out, for example,
he does not recognize the strange way of writing each line directly
beneath the preceding one. He is amazed by men such as Tsezar who
have lived in Moscow, which to Shukhov is an exotic, faraway land.
Nor is he a gifted or sensitive emotional soul: he shows almost
no affection for his long-forgotten wife and daughters, no romantic
nostalgia for his lost home, and no dreams of a better life elsewhere. Shukhov
is an ordinary Russian, as implied by his name. “Ivan” is one of
the most common names in the Russian language, like the English
“John.” Solzhenitsyn makes this undistinguished man the hero of
his novel in order to represent the uneducated peasant mainstream
of Soviet society.
Shukhov’s struggle shows us the peasant’s inner nobility
in the face of degradation. His full acceptance of his new identity
and of his camp life, and his amazing ability to build a meaningful
existence for himself out of the arbitrary camp system, make him
a spiritual hero. His intensity in living, eating, and working puts
him in control of his world. For example, when Shukhov works on
a brick wall, the narrator says that he focuses on it as if he owned
every inch of it. In a way, although he is a slave, he is still
the king of his little area of the world. He is not an aristocrat
by blood, but inwardly he is proud, supreme, and untouchable.
Ace your assignments with our guide to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich!